Academia increasingly demands we be masters of many trades - not only of our specific research, but public communications, winning funding, teaching, demonstrating impact, and building shared resources. Which can be excellent fun, or utterly daunting.
As with so much in research, the difficulty is finding a balance between over-committing (for fear of missing out, or the hunt for CV content), and allowing ourselves to say 'Yes' to things that will be genuinely rewarding, or allow us to bring other interests and skills into play.
In a blog last year I wrote about the importance of diversifying your publication strategy, thinking about different audiences and how you might reach them. Part of establishing your profile / expertise / research niche is making your work accessible and interesting to a wider public than your immediate colleagues and competitors.
This year we are delighted that Richard Carter of Roehampton University has provided a 'Voice of Experience' blog about how he has incorporated his arts practice into his more 'mainstream' research and teaching, reflecting on the challenges and benefits of taking a very different approach to standard publication routes!
If you’d like to take a look at some of Richard’s arts practice, here’s a link to his Waveforms project. He also recommends Sasha Engelmann as a great example of ‘work that takes seriously creative, speculative practice as a mode of enquiry’.
Waveform project http://richardacarter.com/waveform/
Sasha Engelmann’s Open Weather initiative http://www.sashaengelmann.com/amateur-radio
Artistic Research in Academia and Beyond
Richard A Carter, University of Roehampton
Since completing my PhD in 2016, my research has been characterised by its practical, creative exploration of different activities and artefacts that speak to the questions I am exploring. Specifically, I have been producing artistic works that variously embody, embed, and evaluate the phenomena and critical themes shaping my enquiries—whether to realise a speculated vector, or to learn more about the energies, materials, and techniques they bring together. This mode of working is sometimes characterised as ‘practice-led’ or ‘artistic’ research, and while it may not be suited for every topic of investigation, it still provides a vibrant, inspiring pathway for discovering new ways of knowing the contemporary environment.
Nonetheless, such approaches, while hardly new in the context of the academy, can sit uncomfortably in relation to the conventional channels by which scholarly work is disseminated and evaluated—e.g. printed journal papers and conferences—and the audiences it reaches subsequently. Care is needed therefore when describing, pitching, and generally positioning artistic research, its outputs, and overall ethos to different audiences. To reiterate the key lessons from my personal experience, I would note immediately, from my time as a PhD student and beyond, that identifying and focusing on the right audience in the first instance—the most receptive groupings within existing academic or artistic communities—is even more crucial than might be presumed, given that the greatest strength and vulnerability of creative, experimental work is its ability to challenge the cautious orthodoxies that predominate within a scholarly environment. In a humanities context especially, while significant work is focused on appraising artistic productions, I have found the adoption of creative techniques as modes of research are not always met with acceptance, and there is much to be said for avoiding the assumption that immediate peers are as enthusiastic or understanding of these methods as might be hoped. It took me a significant period of time, following my PhD, to find the best communities for disseminating and discussing my work, and I now recognise that it represented a much greater barrier than I first envisaged—not just for attaining wider recognition, but for overcoming the discouragement and self-doubt that characterises a lonely search for a receptive environment.
The second lesson I have gained, emerging out of the first, is that when presenting artistic research in a scholarly context, whether in a written or spoken format, detailed critical exposition reigns. While it may appear antithetical to parse creative work into formats that can run against the very motivations behind its production, I have found that comprehensive levels of verbal exposition are often necessary to preclude any sense that the work undertaken is merely a form of unreflective ‘play’, rather than an earnest enquiry that takes seriously other modes of perception and expression. A key benefit of artistic research is that it is strongly generative, and this necessitates a careful balance between emphasising the richness of its potentials while still providing an ostensibly complete account as to how it emerged, and what it ultimately stands for.
The final point to make here concerns the evident potential for taking artistic research out of an academic context and presenting it to other communities of practitioners or the public at large. In contrast to the intensive scrutiny it may attract in scholarly contexts, the questions artistic research can attract may be disarmingly straightforward, or provocatively broad, and will, in my experience, focus largely on the concrete outputs generated—their ultimate ‘meaning’—and their relationship to other genres of artistic practice more broadly. I have found that it is indeed best to fully expect the unexpected when discussing with public audiences the motivations and potentials behind my work, and, indeed, to embrace the resulting variety of interpretations on offer—to take it as a privilege that it generates any interest and engagement at all, whether or not this is aligned with the specific ideas behind its production.
In the face of these varied challenges, it might be asked why artistic research is still worth pursuing, with the myriad uncertainties it can bring, compared to the relative ‘knowns’ of conventional scholarly practice and their expectations. While the pursuit of creative, experimental work may represent a more personally motivated choice compared to other critical paths, I am able to say that my own efforts here have generated more professional recognition and engagement than any other scholarly activity I have pursued so far. In producing work that seeks to push the boundaries of critical enquiry, in forms that are strikingly concrete and provocatively strange, I have had the privilege of opportunities and adventures I would not have gained otherwise. Such anecdotes do not, of course, translate into a recommendation that such endeavours are suitable or appropriate for every scholar, but I can still attest that, for those willing to embrace its many significant challenges and vibrant opportunities, artistic research represents a most professionally and personally satisfying mode of working.
We know from some of your interesting posts on the forum that many of you combine your research with other careers, arts practice, social action and community projects. We'd love to hear about some of these in the forum, or perhaps you might design a collaboration within your pods? We're very happy to support any such initiatives where we can.